President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the decision on Tuesday following a two-day meeting of the African National Congress, which had earlier signalled its intention to redistribute land under the current laws.
The South African parliament in February voted in favour of a motion, brought by the radical Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters and supported by the ANC, to send the matter to parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee.
“It has become patently clear that our people want the constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation, as demonstrated in public hearings,” Mr Ramaphosa said in a video message addressing “fellow South Africans, comrades, friends”.
“The ANC [has] reaffirmed its position that a comprehensive land reform program that enables equitable access to land will unlock economic growth by bringing more land in South Africa to full use and enable the productive participation of millions more South Africans in the economy.”
Mr Ramaphosa said the ANC would finalise a proposed amendment to the constitution that “outlines more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected”.
“The intention of this proposed amendment is to promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security,” he said. “It will also transform the unjust spatial realities in urban areas.”
But Mr Ramaphosa said a “proper reading” of the constitution and the property clause as it currently stands “enables the state to effect expropriation of land with just and equitable compensation, and also expropriation without compensation in the public interest”.
Land ownership and wealth inequality are racially charged issues in South Africa, nearly three decades after the end of Apartheid.
A 2017 government audit found white people owned 72 per cent of farmland in South Africa. According to the 2011 census, there are about 4.6 million white people in South Africa, accounting for 8.9 per cent of the population.
Mr Ramaphosa made land redistribution a key pillar of his policy platform after taking over from ousted PM Jacob Zuma in December, largely in response to pressure from the EFF, whose leader Julius Malema has been accused of whipping up racial tensions.
White farmers, mainly from the Afrikaner minority, say they are victims of a co-ordinated campaign of violence intended to drive them off their land. More than 2000 white farmers have been killed in attacks characterised by extreme brutality, rape and torture since 1994.
Civil rights group AfriForum says 84 were killed in 2017 alone. Critics, however, say the number of so-called “plaasmoorde” pale in comparison to the overall murder rate — nearly 20,000 South Africans of all races were killed in 2017 — and that the attacks are not racially or politically motivated.
In the wake of high-profile media coverage earlier this year, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton floated the idea of fast-tracked humanitarian visas for persecuted farmers, saying they faced “horrific circumstances” and needed help from a “civilised country”.
That sparked outrage from South Africa’s government, which demanded an apology. Mr Malema later told a rally that if white farmers wanted to flee for a “racist country” like Australia they should leave the keys to their houses and tractors behind.
Speaking to the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent on Tuesday night, cattle farmer Jo-an Engelbrecht — whose elderly parents were tortured and killed in their home on Mother’s Day — said even if he wanted to sell his farm and leave, it was now “worth zero”.
“We had several auctions in the last two or three weeks cancelled because there was no people interested in buying the land,” he said. “Why would you buy a farm to know the government’s going to take it?”
Tuesday’s announcement is expected to have serious ramifications for investor confidence in South Africa’s already struggling economy.
It comes after data showing South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 27.2 per cent in the second quarter, up from 26.7 per cent. Mr Ramaphosa said the figures were “quite worrying”. “Our economy is facing serious challenges at the moment,” he said.
He announced a “stimulus package to ignite growth in our economy that will lead to the creation of jobs, especially for young people and women”. The package will include increased investment in public infrastructure and “trade support measures” for sectors affected by import surges such as sugar.
“This stimulus package will be based on existing budgetary resources and the pursuit of new investments while remaining committed to fiscal prudence,” he said.